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The two logics cannot connect.
As it happened, the department’s concerns about its relation to white supremacy had already been publicized by The New York Times. Late in April, The New York Times Magazine featured a moving story about Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a professor in the department. Peralta’s trajectory is remarkable. He was born into a poor family in the Dominican Republic (where, as he reminds us, the classical heritage is widely respected) and had, against all odds, become a Princeton professor. The piece, titled, “He Wants to Save Classics From Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?” told of Peralta’s conversion from celebrating Greek and Roman civilizations as sources of modern reason to wanting classicists (as the Times put it) “to knock ancient Greece and Rome off their pedestal — even if that means destroying their discipline” because of their role in legitimating white supremacy.
Such announcements are not uncommon. Over the past year or so the medieval English program at the University of Leicester, in Britain, was axed, apparently because of medievalism’s long appeal to white racists. The University of Chicago’s English department temporarily suspended entry into its graduate program this year except for Black-studies students as a riposte to what it saw as English’s “long history of providing aesthetic rationalizations for colonization, exploitation, extraction and anti-Blackness.” And away from media glare, there’s a steady trickle of rumor about, for instance, programs banning authors — Conrad, Nietzsche, Locke, Hume, J.S. Mill and so on — deemed racist or imperialist.
It’s easy, not least for someone of my generation and background (white baby boomer, heterosexual, upper-middle class) to feel threatened by all this. What about the immense richness in the humanities that have been transmitted to us? Aren’t they at risk? Don’t the reformers know that, as recent research in global history and empire has re-emphasized (I’m thinking of the work presented in, say, John Darwin’s After Tamerlane), white people monopolized power only for a shortish historical period (between about 1815 and 1945)? And that they were able to do so for reasons other than their interest (such as it was) in the classics or literary history? How are curriculum changes in elite humanities programs going to help end racism in broader society, anyway?
On the other hand, it’s clear that racism is a crippling and recalcitrant problem, especially in the U.S. It is also clear that the traditional high humanities’ prestige has indeed played a role in the white West’s domination of others. This being the case, shouldn’t we do our bit to end white hegemony? In that context, is it so important that Latin and Greek are mandated or that medieval English is still widely taught?
So an impasse. Where to go?
On closer inspection two features of this impasse stand out. It is clear that, in fact, resistance to white supremacy is not the most immediate motive for the Princeton, Leicester, and Chicago decisions. Such moves are primarily responses to the shrinking of the humanities for other reasons. Princeton, for instance, is abandoning proficiency in Greek and Latin as a prerequisite for the classics track because enrollments in that major have declined in recent years and faculty members hope to attract more students. Not dissimilar reasons drove Chicago and Leicester’s decisions.
In this light, it may be that the fight against white supremacy at the level of curricula is not so much a cause of the humanities’ diminishment as its effect. Antiracism may in part be a cover for a restructuring of curricula required by other pressures. This would at least stave off worries that the politics of race lie behind the humanities’ current plight.
Second, while the humanities are shrinking across much of the West, the current anti-white supremacy movement started in the U.S. Because of America’s appalling history of slavery, racism is, as they say, structural in the U.S. And because America’s university system is the most admired in the world, its shifts have global implications. The drive in the United States to label the humanities’ legacy as white extends, neo-imperialistically, beyond its borders.
But it does not extend everywhere. The charge of systemic whiteness has barely been felt in the nonwhite nations where, globally, most students now study the humanities — in China and India. This means that we need have little fear that the humanities are under threat globally.
Once upon a time — in translations from Virgil’s Aeneid, say — “race” was the English equivalent of the Latin “gentes,” usually translated as “people.” A race was a people or a tribe or even a family. Then, famously, in the 19th century the category became a scientific one. It came to be regarded as biological fact that the human species was divided into different breeds or races, some of which were more advanced than others. Scientific racism was not necessarily quite white supremacy, however. For instance, one well-known racist claim was that “Aryans” were a superior race that included Indians but not, say, Slavs or Celts.
In the last decades of the 19th century, Franz Boas and other anthropologists revised the concept of race again. Race came to be understood not as biological reality but as a “social construct.” This had profound political implications. Because, under this new dispensation, there would be no more races in a future enlightened society, we could best fight racism now by not thinking of ourselves racially at all. Under this remit, it could be considered racist to identify with a race, and institutions that required one to do so should be resisted.
From the 1970s onward, with the appearance of “pan-African” and “pan-Arab” movements internationally as well as Black Power activism in the U.S., this antiracist social-construct model mutated. No longer were we to look forward to the end of racial difference. While races continued to be understood not as natural kinds but as social constructs, it also came to be widely acknowledged that oppressed races in particular were better off embracing their racial identity and using it to resist white control.
That understanding of racism has recently acquired additional features. There now exists a global white race characterized by, well, its whiteness. Books like Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility show the degree to which the specific life conditions of whiteness and Blackness are replacing older, more abstract, understandings of race and racism.
As whiteness in particular comes into focus, it is no longer primarily an identity. You can carry whiteness without identifying with it, without even being aware of it. Whiteness becomes a spontaneous assumption and enactment of confidence, access, and superiority across a whole range of actions, feelings, decisions, and opportunities. Whiteness can be expressed in how you order in a restaurant; in the music you listen to; how you walk down the sidewalk; as well as, of course, what kind of career you seek and find, or how you judge the success or otherwise of your life path. Thought about this way, whiteness is supreme not just because those who have it control Western societies but also because, often invisibly, it covers and confers so much across all areas of life. For that reason it has to be broadly contested.
In the academic arena this vision of whiteness reminds us that the history of the Western university, and of the humanities in particular, has been almost entirely in the hands of white people — of white men. More than that: Because of the humanities’ longstanding capacity to confer status and dignity, they have been a powerful organizer of white supremacy. From this perspective, it can seem as if the vast and various archive of information, methods, canons, genealogies, and disciplines that constitute the traditional Western humanities can all be seen as fundamentally white. The classics are just the start of it.
The difficulty with this conceptual/political edifice is that it remains true to the original “gentes,” or biological logic of race. Ontologically, races may no longer be understood as natural kinds, but they remain so logically or structurally. You are either Black or white by birth (individuals are no longer so often thought of as having “mixed” race). To try to change your race is disallowed, disgraceful. Racial differences are rigid. Race is a fate.
Because race talk calls upon hard inherited grounds and divisions, it does not welcome what Edward Said used to call “affiliation.” Races as such can’t be creatively worked upon and reinvented; they can’t flash forth in new forms with and through unexpected connections; they aren’t open to the play of interpretation. Even as social constructs, they belong to the order of the given, not to the order of invention.
It is for this reason that race talk lies askew the humanities. The problem isn’t just that the humanities are historically white, and in many Western countries remain so today. That is true and needs to be changed. The deeper problem is that the conceptual apparatus that underpins race talk, including the new view of whiteness, cannot be accommodated into the humanities’ commitment to inventiveness, interpretation, dialogue, persuasion, problematization, historicization, and so on.
This matters. It is because the race concept and the humanities have different logical structures that the charge of white supremacy against the humanities leads to an impasse. A binary opposition meets a model that is organized on very different terms. The two logics cannot connect.
Sixty-two years before the birth of Christ, Cicero established the basic terms on which the Western humanities would be built. He did so in a speech to a Roman court on behalf of Archias, who was his old teacher as well as a well-known poet. The speech would be recovered in Northern Italy by Petrarch in 1333 and help stimulate what would come to be called “humanism.”
Archias was born in what was then Syria and is today Turkey. Before coming to Rome, he had worked as a teacher of Greek in what Cicero calls Asia. Archias was not what we would now call “white.” He had apparently once been registered as a Roman citizen, but that registration had been withdrawn for political reasons concerning his patron Lucullus, and Cicero was hired to defend his right to citizenship, probably because Archias had been Cicero’s own teacher of Greek and literature.
Cicero’s speech, long known as Pro Archia,has largely been forgotten, but it still has something to tell us. (I owe much of my sense of it to Eric Adler’s recent The Battle of the Classics: How a nineteenth-century debate can save the humanities today.) Cicero decided to pitch his defense around Archias’s career as a poet and teacher. In describing Archias’s pedagogy, Cicero came up with the term studia humanitatis, which would long name the humanities, and also identified the study of humanity as artes liberales, liberal arts. Cicero’s claim was that all the various ways of studying the human world were connected and affiliated. As he told the court, his own ability as an orator owed much to the literature, history, and Greek language that Archias had taught him.
For Cicero, the humanities underpinned not just Roman society’s, but every society’s, ability to achieve great qualities: politeness and generosity (which the word humanitatis also denoted at the time); consciousness of the past; the capacity to communicate successfully and to honor past and present achievements.
In sum, Cicero argued in court that Rome should welcome Archias as a citizen not because he had filiative or racial connections to the nation but because of his skills in, and contributions to, what is mobile, generous, tolerant, dialogic, what crosses boundaries and what will endure into the future, that is, something very like what we today call the humanities.
After Petrarch’s recovery of his texts, Cicero remained central to the liberal arts for about five centuries, as did proficiency in Latin and Greek, the languages required for direct access to him and his peers. Cicero’s interest in rhetoric and grammar formed the basis of advanced early modern pedagogy. Skills in these fields remained the centerpiece of university curricula until the later 19th century, not least because, although pagan, they were incorporated into the training of Christian priests.
In the U.S., the battle to marginalize the classics was fought out most visibly at Harvard, where Charles W. Eliot introduced ”electives” from about 1870. This meant that students could choose their subjects without being hemmed in by prerequisites, including the classical languages. (Greek stopped being a prerequisite for the bachelor of arts at Harvard in 1886.) When “majors” were introduced into undergraduate curricula after 1890, and the modern undergrad-degree structure thereby established, the classics were no longer required for a B.A. anywhere and the humanities could be democratized.
As they lost presence and prestige, the classics could be appealed to in a culture war against individualism, utilitarianism, and romanticism. Around 1910, for Irving Babbitt and the so-called New Humanists, they stood for restraint and impersonality. More long lastingly, they came to be regarded as cornerstones in “great books” or “Western civ” courses. Either way they lost their capacity to provide the communicative and ethical skills necessary for the liberal education as Cicero — a lawyer, administrator and politician — had imagined such an education centuries ago.
No doubt the classics-centered humanities had been a barrier controlling entry into the elite. Gaining skills in Latin and Greek allowed thousands of young men, some poor, to join the professions and become, as they used to say, “gentlemen.” For all that, it is worth remembering (as the case of the Dominican Republic already shows us) that the classics were not necessarily conservative or even white. Not at all.
While in prison, the Italian communist intellectual and leader Antonio Gramsci spent a considerable time arguing that a “formative” education based on the classics was more useful for a communist and revolutionary society than a utilitarian and practical one because it had wider, more supple, historical reach.
In the late 1880s, W.E.B. Du Bois, teaching at an African American primary school in rural Tennessee, found that parents could be reluctant to send their children to class. How did he persuade them to do so? By producing his own translation of Cicero’s Pro Archia into “simple” English and giving it “local applications.” The ploy worked, so Du Bois tells us, at least for a time.
In the end I do not believe we can break that impasse from inside the university. What is needed is something else: an end to the conditions under which the concept of white supremacy is so persuasive. That would require a genuine reckoning with the continuing history of white power and racism, especially in the U.S.
The Germans, who have had to face their own terrible history, invented a word for this kind of coming to terms with the past: Vergangenheitsbewältigung. As Susan Neiman has shown us in her marvelous book, Learning From the Germans, Germany might provide a template for working through America’s own history of slavery and racism, a template that includes — alongside continuing social-justice measures — serious reparations, state-sponsored shifts in public memory (including memory of enslaved and victimized individuals), accurate historiography, meaningful apologies, and more.
In the meantime, those of us who hold university offices, especially those of us who teach in the humanities disciplines with their extensive, complex genealogies, should try to remain at a distance from all logics, including the logics of race talk, that do not reflect affiliation and generosity as Cicero understood them. Our official role in coming to terms with the racist past is limited to that which honors the protocols, interests, and methods of our disciplines. It does not include dividing the world into friends and enemies, banning texts and words, or racially labeling archives and whole disciplines.
I realize that this way of looking at the situation is unlikely to be widely shared — and that it amounts to an avoidance of the impasse rather than a breaking free of it. But I find myself insisting on it because, even if it were to be accepted that the humanities need to be reconfigured in order to separate them from white supremacy, they’d need to stay tightly connected to the history I’ve briefly traced: a history that developed out of an idea first articulated long ago by a Roman lawyer on behalf of a powerless Syrian teacher, and that has no room for the natural logic of race. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be the humanities.